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Tensions run high near the border of British India, which is about to be partitioned with a new country called Pakistan. Sikhs living in this border town have heard numerous stories of Muslims killing, raping, and looting other Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians, and many of whom are their friends and relatives.

Enraged at the loss of law and order, they plan their own attack on a train full of Muslims leaving British India. The train is overcrowded with tens and thousands of migrating passengers, who are even perched on the windows and seated on the roof of this train. The plot is to tear the bridge down when the train is on it, and no one will dare stop these men to carry out this horrific task.

Khushwant Singh's eye for detail and his love of the people shine through in his descriptions: the District Magistrate's "style of smoking betrayed his lower middle-class origin. He sucked noisily, his mouth glued to his clenched fist."

The most heart-rending passage in the book is when the government makes the decision to transport all the Muslim families from Mano Majra to Pakistan. The dumbstruck villagers are overtaken by events. A small joint army convoy, containing one unit of Sikh soldiers and one of Baluch and Pathans, arrives in the village and orders the Muslims to board within ten minutes. They do so with the barest minimum of their meager belongings. The Muslim officer politely shakes hands with his Sikh colleague, and sets off with his caravan to Pakistan. The non-Muslim families don't get a chance to say goodbye. This entire scene takes place after we are familiar with the characters, and it is painful at many levels: the poverty in which these people live; the terrible uncertainty they are suddenly cast into; the renting asunder of the attitudes and loyalties of the British Indian Army; and at least temporarily, the eclipse of people's humanity.

In Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh succeeds in showing the human dimension of the momentous event of Partition, through ordinary characters we can identify with. In the final climactic scene, the village badmash Jagga takes it upon himself to try to save a trainload of refugees, even at the cost of his own life.

Khushwant Singh went on to become a famously truculent, humorous, and eccentric columnist and editor, but this is one book infused with his compassion and humanity. It is as if the author were trying to save the memory of a tragedy too horrible to forget, even at the cost of his own future reputation. 

Train to Pakistan

Directed by Pamela Rooks
Writing credits: Pamela Rooks; Khushwant Singh (novel)

Running Time: 111 minutes